Training & Technique
Balance on Skis
By STEVE HINDMAN
Common wisdom has it that there is no free lunch, but that's not entirely true for the skier, at least in a metaphorical sense. Out on the ski trails, the freebie is called glide.
To glide without a hill to slide down, you need the ability to balance on one ski at a time while continuously moving forward from ski to ski. Allowing your momentum to carry you forward from one ski to the other is what makes gliding on skis easy, relaxed and enjoyable.
Of course, even this lunch isn’t really free. To enjoy it you need skis that glide, and the dynamic balance that gives you confidence to continuously "fall" from ski to ski. Some skis are called waxless; they are designed to grip the snow without application of grip wax. Other skis require wax. Regardless of whether you use waxless or waxable skis, you must maintain the bases of your skis for glide. With waxed skis, the glide wax must be suitable for the snow conditions.
If you own waxless skis, try a pair of waxable skis on a day when it is below freezing. Make sure they are properly waxed for glide and grip, and see what you think. When you use waxless skis, be sure to treat the pattern with some sort of paste wax or liquid to prevent snow from sticking. Apply it before setting your skis onto the snow.
Once you have skis with adequate grip that glide well, you are ready to learn to glide. Remember the duck walk from the last issue (Cross Country Skier, October 2002)? That stilted waddle brings your weight forward before your heel hits the ground, ensuring that all your weight will be on one foot when you tilt up onto it. When you catch yourself with a ski that glides instead of just your foot, the ski will slide forward due to the gift of weight and momentum you have just given it. Suddenly the ugly duckling can glide like a swan.
To find out how it feels on the snow, go find some flats. Lift one foot and extend that leg behind you. Imagine that your spine and your rear leg are part of one line pointing backward.
This is a position that you want to be comfortable in while you glide, so experiment with your balance in this position without moving. Hop up and land on the same foot while maintaining this position. Then hop and land on the opposite foot, adopting the mirror image of the position. Dance around from ski to ski to refine your balance.
Balance in Motion
Many stories have been told about those who have refused legitimate gifts because they couldn’t believe there were no strings attached. Most beginners react the same way to the gift of glide. Our natural reaction when a ski starts to slide forward is to stiffen the front ankle and knee, and to "pull up" in an attempt to keep that ski from sliding out from under us. If you "pull up", find a very slight downhill. Slide down the hill while balancing on one foot. See how far you can go on one foot before you are forced to put your other foot down. If you struggle to not set the other ski onto the snow, think of aligning your left eye over your left foot, and your right eye over your right foot. Do not lift the un-weighted foot out to the side as a counterbalance. After some success, do it again but extend your rear leg as in Photo 1. As you flex at the waist to counter balance your rear leg, be sure to flex your ankle enough to keep your belly button in front of the heel of your front foot.
To start to enjoy the glide, choose a flat section of trail with a good track set on it. Start to move on your skis with a shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, g-l-i-d-e, or 1,2,3, g-l-i-d-e rhythm. In other words, get moving in some fashion and then pause to simply glide. During the glide phase, move into the position you practiced with your rear leg extended. Keep some flex in your front ankle and knee so that your belly button stays in front of the heel of your front foot
Now take your newly found balance out into the real world. The position of Photo 3 is your home base. Move from one ski onto the other by straightening the leg your were standing on as you drive onto and over the next ski. Move slowly and balance completely on one ski at a time. Choose a well-groomed, flat section of track and strive to move smoothly from one ski to the next, balancing completely over one foot at a time.
When you get to a hill or any other spot on the track where your skis tend to slip back, shorten your movements so that your belly button doesn’t drop behind your foot. To avoid squatting between your feet as shown in Photo 4, avoid trying to push your ski forward when you move from ski to ski. Instead, figure out how to drive your core, the area from your upper thigh to the bottom of your ribcage, forward and onto the next ski. Refer back to the ski specific dryland drills in the pre-season issue that focused on keeping the core moving continuously forward as you moved from foot to foot.
With properly prepared skis that match your weight and ability, you should, with a little practice, be able to move around any green trail without your skis slipping back.
Work at the drill until you are comfortable with it, then head out on the tracks and just ski. Remember to find a spot in every stride where you are balancing on one foot and simply riding the glide. Smile, you’re enjoying your free lunch!
Are You Experienced?
The Power Lunch
When you are comfortable balancing on one ski as it glides, and are able to drive your core forward through one position of balance to the next as you move from ski to ski, then you are ready to add some power to your glide. It's great, but it is no longer free.
During your stride, you get to enjoy the free part only briefly. That is the free glide phase of the diagonal stride, when the gift of weight and momentum you have just delivered to your ski moves it forward. The free lunch is over when you plant your pole and begin to push yourself forward.
When you pole, the really heavy work comes when you start your kick. During the kick, your ski needs to stop so that you can push forward and deliver weight and momentum to your next ski. When you can create enough pressure, directed down through the ski, to make the wax or the waxless pattern adhere to the snow, your ski will stop.
To create that downward pressure, move your core, the area from your upper thigh to the bottom of your ribcage, over and in front of the foot you are gliding on. The most efficient way to do this is to flex your front ankle, letting your core fall forward and toward the snow. The ability, and willingness, to fall forward from your ankles while keeping your heel down is key. Dropping your hips back, or even straight down, as you flex to move forward, eliminates any help you can get from gravity as you move forward.
Practice the forward fall without skis at first, so that you will be less intimidated.
Stepping onto a ski placed under your core from the position in Photo 5 would send that ski shooting forward, but you would be unable to add any power to the glide with such straight legs. Once you gain some confidence with the simple straight leg fall, allow your knees and hips to bend as you fall forward from your ankles The weight in Photo#6 is as committed as in Photo 5, but now the skier can use the power coiled in his legs to launch forward. Notice that the angle of the shin to the snow matches the angle of the spine.
The Leap of Faith
In skiing, unlike walking, there is an impulse within each stride that powers you onto the next ski. You can incorporate this into your ski stride by thinking of making a small leap from ski to ski. Start with your skis off, but grab your poles for added confidence and balance.
Start with a fall forward. Coil your leg muscles as you fall, deepening the flex of your ankle, knee and hip just before your next leap. Keep your heel down as long as possible before the final pushoff so that you can apply the power coiled in your body over the longest period of time. Once your heel leaves the ground, your ability to push off is coming to an end.
Leap from two feet and land on two feet. Land softly by flexing your ankles, as if you were in a second floor apartment and didn’t want to wake your neighbors downstairs. Notice how you can gain distance by timing when you start your arm swing and when you stop it.
Then leap from two feet to one foot. Absorb the landing with a flexed ankle, and practice until you don’t need a second step to regain your balance. Then fall, coil and leap from one foot to one foot, landing softly and absorbing the landing with a flexed ankle.
With one ski on, leap from your foot onto your ski. Be sure to land with a flexed ankle to help you balance on that ski. Practice this until you can stick your landing, balancing on one ski as you glide in the original position illustrated in Photos 3 and 7.
When you can leap off your foot and land in balance, put your other ski on and leap from ski to ski. Think of the leap as a ‘push with flight’. After a few successful leaps from ski to ski, focus on directing all the power from each pushoff down the track. Direct the flight path of your leap just above the track to minimize any up and down component of the motion. Now go ski, leaping from ski to ski, and be amazed how far you glide with each stride.
The rear leg extension so prominent in classic photos (Photo 3, XT-21) is a result of the quick release of the energy stored in your coiled leg when you move forward, not a result of pushing back. That high rear leg is like the fumes of a jet engine after a quick jab of the throttle by the pilot. The intensity of this explosive move onto your next ski will vary with your fitness, the terrain, and your wax job, but you want to find a way to put a little pop in the end of each kick, even when you are just coasting around the trails.
Your ability to move powerfully forward is limited by the amount of grip your ski has on the snow. Stay tuned to this same bat channel, same bat time, for tips on how to maximize your grip in order to move forward onto your next ski.